From the painting by Cecilia Beaux,
Paul Jones's early career during the Revolution may be briefly told. On May 10, 1776, he received the 12‑gun brig Providence as his first independent command. On this vessel he carried troops and convoyed merchantmen, and so skilful was he in eluding the numerous British cruisers, that Congress promoted him in August to the full rank of captain, with orders to cruise for prizes along the Atlantic coast. In September, 1776, by a bold maneuver, he escaped from the 28‑gun frigate Solebay. He later eluded the British frigate Milford, captured sixteen prizes, and destroyed other vessels. Some time after this, while in command of the Alfred, Captain Jones took the British brig Mellish, and as he was accompanied by a convoy of prizes, he skilfully lured the Milford away from them, under cover of night, so that they got safely to an American port, and then Jones, by superior seamanship, escaped from his pursuer.
Captain Jones, on June 14, 1777, was put in command of the new 18‑gun ship Ranger, built at Portsmouth, N. H., and was ordered to France. What the motives were for sending him to foreign waters is not quite clear. His knowledge of British shores and his success in American waters were doubtless contributing factors. He was, p25moreover, looked upon by some of his colleagues as lukewarm to America, because he was a native of Scotland and had, from natural motives of generosity, been lenient to British prisoners.
It was true that he had been only about three years in America, and his ideas of liberty and the rights of man he had drawn from a brief association with the radicals of North Carolina and Virginia. But these radicals were no less than Willie Jones (son of the colonial agent of Lord Granville), Joseph Hewes, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson. What they taught certainly left a lasting impression.
Furthermore, the jealousy of the inactive Commodore Hopkins, who looked with eyes askance at the strenuous successes of his young subordinate, may have had some effect in sending Jones to a difficult task far from home waters. This feeling against him seems also to have existed in Congress, for on the reorganization of the Navy, October 10, 1776, thirteen men were promoted over his head. Some years later, in a letter to Robert Morris, Jones writes: "Rank, which opens the door to glory, is too near the heart of every man of true military feeling, to be given up in favor of any other man who has not, by the achievement of some brilliant action, or by known and superior abilities, merited such preference. If this be so, how must I have felt, since, by the second table of captains in the navy, adopted by Congress on the 10th of October, 1776, I was superseded in favor of thirteen persons, two of whom were my junior lieutenants at the beginning; the rest were only commissioned into the Continental Navy on that day; and if they had any superior ability, these were not then known, nor have since been proved. I am the eldest sea officer (except Captain Whipple) on the Journal, and under the commission of Congress, remaining in the service."
p26 Whatever the motives in sending him to Europe may have been, Jones started at once to prepare his ship for his long cruise. The selection of the commissioned and warrant officers of the Ranger was entrusted to a committee of three men — William Whipple, the New Hampshire member of the Marine Committee, John Langdon, Continental agent at Portsmouth, and John Paul Jones, the new commander of the vessel. This illustrates one of the various ways by which selections of this kind were made — surely not a bad way, inasmuch as it gave the man who was to command the vessel a voice in the choosing of the men who were to serve under him. The Ranger is said to have been the first vessel to fly the Stars and Stripes, then recently adopted.
Jones arrived at Nantes in December, 1777, and from there he sailed in February, 1778, for Quiberon Bay, to escort some American merchantmen. This was just about the same time that the secret treaty was made between the United States and France. Jones, in his orders, had been warned to be very careful about the rights of the latter country as a neutral nation. Although Franklin was doing his utmost to have the United States recognized by France, thinking that this act would involve the French in trouble with the English, still any unwarranted breaches of neutrality might at the crucial moment spoil the plans of the American Commissioners at Paris. Captain Jones writes very proudly of the fact that, at Quiberon Bay, on February 14, 1778, the Ranger was the first American vessel to exchange salutes with a foreign nation. Jones sent a boat back and forth to the French flagship in his effort to get the French admiral to return gun for gun, but at length the American commander reluctantly consented to a salute of two guns less than his own. This incident shows Jones's pride in his adopted country; it also shows a willingness on the part p27of France to do a generous and overt act towards recognition of the new nation.
On April 10, 1778, Jones left Brest and sailed straight for the English coast. His first attempt was to set fire to the great quantity of shipping in the harbor of Whitehaven. Landing early on the morning of the 22d, he easily captured the forts. But, because of a hitch in his plans, the day was well advanced and the people were crowding to the shore in thousands before he reached the shipping. He had to content himself with setting fire to one ship, with the hope that the flames would spread to the 200 or more vessels in the harbor. The attempt was not successful, but its daring strongly impressed the British.
Shortly after these events, Jones stood over to the Scotch shore, where, with one boat and a very small party, he made a landing at St. Mary's Isle. The American captain did this with the purpose of capturing the Earl of Selkirk as a hostage for the better treatment of our prisoners in England. As this nobleman was not at home, the sailors contented themselves with the taking of the silverware of the castle, which Jones himself bought from his men and returned to the Countess of Selkirk with a chivalrous letter full of apologies.
On the morning of the 24th of April, 1778, Jones appeared off Carrickfergus on the northeast coast of Ireland opposite Whitehaven, and lured out the British sloop of war Drake, 20 guns, which came to investigate the "suspicious stranger." Hails were exchanged, whereupon, says Jones, "the Drake being astern of the Ranger, I ordered the helm up and gave the first broadside. The action was warm, close, and obstinate. It lasted p28an hour four minutes, when the enemy called for quarter; her fore and main topsail yards being both cut away, and down on the cap; the topgallant yard and mizzen-gaff both hanging up and down along the mast; the second ensign which they had hoisted shot away, and p29hanging on the quarter-gallery in the water; the jib shot away, and hanging in the water; her sails and rigging entirely cut to pieces; her masts and yards all wounded, and her hull also very much galled. I lost only Lieutenant Wallingford and one seaman killed, and six wounded. The loss of the enemy in killed and wounded was far greater, . . . forty‑two men. The captain and the lieutenant were among the wounded."
It is fair to state that the Drake, though nominally the equal of the Ranger, was almost as unprepared for battle as the ill‑starred Chesapeake in her encounter with the Leopard. The Drake's crew were new; her only officers were the captain, and a lieutenant who had come on board at the last moment as a volunteer; she had no gunner, no cartridges had been filled, and no preparations had been made for handling the powder.
While Jones was thus winning honors in British waters, the ships at home could accomplish little against the tremendous British Navy. But some of our captains, like Biddle and Barry, deserve mention for their heroic struggles in a losing game. On the 32‑gun frigate Randolph, one of the thirteen frigates built by Congress, Captain Nicholas Biddle fought in West Indian waters the British 64‑gun ship-of‑the‑line Yarmouth. After an hour's hard fighting, a shot from the Yarmouth exploded the Randolph's magazine and blew her to fragments. Of the latter's crew of 315 men only four were found alive.
In the Lexington, Captain John Barry captured, in April, 1776, the British sloop Edward. Barry was later promoted to the Effingham, but this vessel was destroyed in the Delaware. In the Raleigh, 32, Captain p30Barry then fell in with the 50‑gun ship Experiment and the frigate Unicorn, in September, 1778. He kept up a running fight for two days, and, when the wind died out, he finally beached his ship on the coast of Maine and escaped with his men. Some time before this, Captain Barry had, with twenty-seven men, boarded the British armed schooner Alert in the Delaware, capturing 116 men and officers, and sinking the schooner and two transports. Barry was one of the bravest naval officers of the Revolution; but he was, if anything, too daring, for it was useless for the American frigates to fight the powerful British ships-of‑the‑line. At the end of 1778, only four of the thirteen frigates were left.
Meanwhile France and England had gone to war, and in 1779 Spain leagued herself with America against England. The joint fleets of France and Spain thereupon entered the Channel and even threatened a descent on the English coast.
Seemingly, France could now render effective aid to Paul Jones, yet he found great difficulty in persuading the French to give him a new command. The Minister of Marine, De Sartine, had promised him again and again specific ships, but the powerful aristocracy in the French Navy prevented De Sartine from fulfilling his promise to a foreigner, who was regarded by many as an adventurer. The impetuous Jones chafed under these repeated disappointments, and wrote many letters to Franklin, De Sartine, and even to the King. When, after five months of waiting, Jones's patience was exhausted, he went in person to the court and received the old hulk Duras, of 40 guns. He had learned the wisdom of one p31of Franklin's adages in the latter's Poor Richard's Almanac, "If you would have your business done, go yourself; if not, send." In gratitude to his friend Franklin, Jones rechristened the Duras the Bonhomme Richard.
Cruises of the Ranger and the Bonhomme Richard
To this vessel were added four other ships: the Alliance, 36; the Pallas, 30; the Cerf, 18; and the Vengeance, 12. The new Alliance, the only American ship in the squadron, Congress had put in command of Pierre Landais, a Frenchman, in compliment to France. The squadron was hastily got ready at L'Orient. Some American prisoners, about 100, recently exchanged by England, gave Jones the nucleus of an American crew on the Bonhomme Richard, but otherwise the officers and crews were a motley and cosmopolitan assemblage, except those of the Pallas and the Vengeance, which were French. Indeed, the fact that Landais' crew were largely British may add some extenuating circumstances to the strange conduct of the "half crazy" officer during the battle. On the other hand, Richard Dale, Jones's first lieutenant, had unusual ability and did excellent service.
The relation of the American commodore to his squadron was peculiar. The representative of the French Minister of Marine, in giving Jones the squadron, had forced him to sign a paper, by which, instead of being the superior officer, he became only one of equal rank with his subordinates. This made the squadron a confederacy rather than a unit.
After repeated delays, Captain Jones finally set sail from L'Orient on August 14, 1779. He proceeded up the west coast of Ireland with the purpose of circumnavigating the British Isles. On August 26, the Cerf and two French privateers which had attached themselves to the squadron a few days before were separated in a gale, and never rejoined the fleet. On the cruise Jones took some ships as prizes and destroyed others; but he had considerable p32difficulty with his French captains, especially Landais, in regard to the disposal of prizes, and he could make no important move without much discussion with his colleagues. Indeed, Landais showed an insubordination that boded ill for the success of any concerted movement.
Having rounded the Orkneys, Jones intended to destroy the shipping at Leith, but was frustrated by the dilatory co‑operation of the captains of the pallas and the Vengeance. On September 23, at dawn, his lookout sighted a large ship rounding Flamborough Head. By noon it became apparent that a Baltic fleet of forty merchantmen, under convoy of two British men-of‑war were heading northeast. The merchantmen, at the signal of danger, scattered in flight toward Scarborough. The warships, which were the Serapis, a new frigate of 50 guns, and the Countess of Scarborough, 20, under the command of Captain Pearson, then took a position between the Baltic fleet inshore and their enemy. Jones now stood for the Serapis and ordered his captains to form the line of battle, an order to which Landais paid no attention. Instead of maintaining his place behind the Richard, Landais, availing himself of the better sailing qualities of the Alliance, forged ahead to ascertain the power of the enemy. Then he went out of gunshot and remained there until the battle began. Landais had already hailed Cottineau in the Pallas, saying that if the enemy had a ship of more than fifty guns their only course was to run away. This insubordinate and cowardly speech, uttered in the presence of the crews of both ships, shows what sort of officer Landais was.1
p33 At six P.M. the Serapis came about and steered westward with the Scarborough in her wake. Jones kept his vessel bows on toward the enemy to keep the British in the dark as to the number of his guns. His only hope was in a close encounter. Thus it was that, when at seven P.M. Jones came within range, the battle opened with both ships gradually running on parallel courses toward Flamborough Head. The wind at this time was southwest.
The Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis
Jones answered Pearson's hail evasively, and immediately followed this up with a shot. At the very first exchange of broadsides, two of the three 18‑pounders on the starboard side of the Richard burst, killing and wounding most of their crews and blowing up the deck above. These guns had to be entirely abandoned, leaving only the 12‑and 9‑pounders.
p34 Of this stage of the battle Jones says in his report:2
"The battle, thus begun, was continued with unremitting fury. Every method was practised on both sides to gain an advantage, and rake each other; and I must confess that the enemy's ship, being much more manageable than the Richard, gained thereby several times an advantageous situation, in spite of my best endeavors to prevent it. As I had to deal with an enemy of greatly superior force, I was under the necessity of closing with him, to prevent the advantage which he had over me in point of maneuver. It was my intention to lay the Richard athwart the enemy's bow, but as that operation required great dexterity in the management of both sails and helm and some of our braces being shot away, it did not exactly succeed to my wishes. The enemy's bowsprit, however, came over the Bonhomme Richard's poop by the mizzenmast, and I made both ships fast together in that situation, which by the action of the wind on the enemy's sails, forced her stern close to the Richard's bow, so that the ships lay square alongside of each other, the yards being all entangled, and the cannon of each ship touching the opponent's side. When this position took place, it was eight o'clock, previous to which the Richard had received sundry 18‑pound shots below the water, and leaked very much."
Although Jones had lashed the vessels together, the Serapis' crew were on the alert for any attempt at boarding. Pearson evidently recognized his great advantage in maneuvering, and at the moment of fouling had let go an anchor, hoping thus, by means of the tide and the wind, to wrench the vessels apart. But the ships held fast. As up to this stage of the battle the Serapis p35had fought only her port guns, the starboard lower ports were closed. Since now the close contact of the vessels prevented the opening of these ports, Pearson fired through them. So near to each other were the gun crews, that, according to Dale, the men had to run the rammers into the opponent's ports to load their pieces, and Pearson tells us that muzzles of the guns touched the sides of the enemy's ship. During this part of the fight, the damage done to the American vessel by the more powerful 18‑pounders of the enemy was terrible. Says Jones: "The rudder was entirely cut off the stern frame, and the transoms were almost wholly cut away. The timbers of the lower deck especially, from the mainmast to the stern, being greatly decayed with age, were mangled beyond any power of description."
In the course of this terrible pounding, Jones's battery of 12‑pounders was entirely silenced and abandoned. In his report he continues:
"I had now only two pieces of cannon, 9‑pounders, on the quarter-deck that were not silenced, and not one of the heavier cannon was fired during the rest of the action. The purser, Mr. Mease, who commanded the guns on the quarter-deck, being dangerously wounded in the head, I was obliged to fill his place, and with great difficulty rallied a few men, and shifted over one of the lee quarter-deck guns, so that we afterward played three pieces of 9‑pounders upon the enemy. The tops alone seconded the fire of this little battery and held out bravely during the whole of the action; especially the main top, where Lieutenant Stack commanded. I directed the fire of one of the three cannon against the main-mast, with double-headed shot, while the other two were exceedingly well served with grape and canister shot to silence the enemy's musketry, and clear her decks, which was at last effected."
p36 The condition of the Richard was becoming more and more desperate; her hold was filling with water and she was on fire in several places. The master-at‑arms, who had charge of the prisoners in the Richard's hold, either thinking the old vessel was doomed, or inspired by treachery, had released them. The prisoners would naturally have joined battle against the crew of the Richard, assisting their countrymen in the Serapis, had not Dale shrewdly put them to work at the pumps, telling them that the enemy's plight was worse, and that their own safety depended on keeping the Richard afloat. Just before this, the gunner, in a state of panic, had loudly clamored for quarter, and was in the act of striking the colors, when Jones hurled his pistol at the fellow, breaking his skull. In the silence that followed, Pearson gave the order to board, but the men who attempted to carry out this command were quickly repelled. To Pearson's query whether the Americans had surrendered, Jones gave the answer that has since become one of the watchwords of the navy, "I have not yet begun to fight!"
Although the Richard was hopelessly inferior in her batteries, the force aloft, armed with muskets and grenades, finally turned the tide of victory. The British had been driven out of their own tops, and the Americans dexterously climbed along the interlaced rigging of the two ships, and thus kept the deck of the Serapis clear of defenders. Says Pearson in his report, "From the great quantity and variety of combustible material they threw upon our decks, chains, and in short into every part of the ship, we were on fire no less than ten or twelve times in different parts of the ship, and it was with the greatest difficulty and exertion at times that we were able to get it extinguished."3
p37 A very important part in this fight was played by a marine in the maintop of Jones's flagship who succeeded in dropping a hand-grenade into the open hatch of the Serapis. A terrific explosion followed, "the flames of which," says Pearson, "running from cartridge to cartridge all the way aft, blew up the whole of the people and officers that were quartered abaft the mainmast; from which unfortunate circumstance all those guns were rendered useless for the remainder of the action, and I fear the greatest part of the people will lose their lives." Pearson was a brave fighter, but this catastrophe on his own ship must have had much to do with the final disorganizing of his men.
At this crisis the Alliance made her appearance. She had once before early in the action sailed around the combatants and fired her broadsides so recklessly at the entangled vessels that she did as much damage to the Richard as to the enemy. Of her second attack, Jones says: "Landais discharged a broadside full into the stern of the Richard. We called to him for God's sake to forbear firing into the Bonhomme Richard; yet he passed along the off side of the ship and continued firing. There was no possibility of his mistaking the enemy's ship for the Richard, there being the most essential difference in their appearance and construction; besides, it was then full moonlight, and the sides of the Richard were all black, while the sides of the prizes were yellow. Yet, for the greater security, I showed the signal of our reconnoissance, by putting out three lanterns, one at the head, another at the stern, and the third in the middle, in a horizontal line. Every tongue cried that he was firing into the wrong ship, but nothing availed; he passed round, firing into the Richard's head, stern, and broadside, and by one of his volleys killed several of my best men, and mortally wounded a good p38officer on the forecastle. My situation was really deplorable. The Richard received various shot under water from the Alliance; the leak gained on the pump, and the fire increased much on board both ships."
However, Captain Pearson was even more discouraged by the reappearance of the Alliance than Jones. In fact, he ascribes his final defeat to Landais. But probably owing to his ignorance of the eccentricities of the Frenchman's character, he did not realize the damage the latter was doing to Jones's ship. Mahan thinks that it was the superiority above decks of the Bonhomme Richard which finally turned the scales.4 At the moment of surrender, the mainmast of the Serapis, at which Jones had for some time been discharging one of his 9‑pounders, went by the board. The loss in killed and wounded was exceptionally heavy on both sides; that of the Richard being 116 men, and of the Serapis 129.5
The Countess of Scarborough, the second of the two vessels under Captain Pearson, was captured after an hour's hard fighting by the Pallas. The latter seems to have been the only one of Jones's ships that rendered assistance. The Vengeance took no part in the action. The Baltic fleet was allowed to escape because, as Jones says, "I myself was in no condition to pursue, and none of the rest showed any inclination to do so." Unquestionably, Landais was jealous of the American commodore, as was evident from numerous acts of his on the cruise.
The honors in this battle were decidedly in favor of Jones, who, in an old vessel, transformed into a one‑decker by the necessary abandonment early in the action of her useless 18‑pounders, had fought to a finish a new frigate, which, though classed as a "forty-four," carried in reality p39fifty guns. The Pallas had her match in the Countess of Scarborough; the Alliance did as much harm as good; and the remaining vessel under Jones took no part in the battle. Thus Pearson, instead of sacrificing his two vessels to save the Baltic fleet against a vastly superior force, had in reality matched his two better vessels against two of Jones's squadron, and the escape of the Baltic fleet was an accident so far as Pearson was concerned. There is not the slightest doubt that Pearson was a brave officer and fought as long as there was any hope of success, but he was matched against a man of indomitable courage. As Captain A. S. Mackenzie says, "The Richard was beaten more than once; but the spirit of Jones could not be overcome."6
After the battle, Captain Jones tried hard to keep the Richard afloat. She was on fire in various parts, and at the same time the water was gaining in her hold in spite of three pumps that were kept constantly at work. The fire was extinguished, but on account of the increasing volume of water, she had to be abandoned, and on the morning of the 25th, with her flag still flying, the victorious old hulk sank beneath the waves.
In the Serapis Jones now sailed for the Texel, where he arrived on October 3. British men-of‑war were lying in wait to capture him; but he bided his time and then, seizing a favourable opportunity, sailed boldly through the English Channel, in plain view of large British fleets at anchor, and reached Groix in February, 1780.
For his brilliant victory, Jones was knighted by France, and presented a sword by the King. On his return to America in 1781, Congress gave him a vote of thanks, and appointed him to command the 74‑gun ship America, then building at Portsmouth, N. H. As the p40war was practically over, Jones's services as a naval officer were no longer needed. In 1783 he was sent to Paris to conduct negotiations regarding prizes of the Bonhomme Richard. Jones later accepted a commission in the Russian Navy as vice-admiral, but his experience in Russia was not a happy one. He returned to Paris, where he spent most of the remaining years of his life, honored by the French, the intimate friend of such men as Morris and Lafayette. In this city Jones died July 18, 1792. Of our greatest naval officer during the Revolution, Napoleon is said to have remarked to Berthier in 1805, after the battle of Trafalgar, "Had Jones lived to this day, France might have had an admiral."
While the navy was winning honors in Europe, important events were happening in home waters. Captain Nicholson, in the U. S. S. Trumbull, saw some hard fighting, but in 1781 this ship was forced to surrender to the Iris and the General Monk. It is a strange irony of fate that the Iris, modify the Hancock, and the first of the thirteen frigates of Congress to be captured, should thus have received the surrender of the Trumbull, the last of the unlucky thirteen. Captain Barry, in the Alliance, made a successful cruise and captured a number of prizes. In an encounter with an unknown vessel, probably the Sibylle, on March 10, 1783, he fought the last sea fight of the Revolution, in which he was unsuccessful, since the Alliance had to relinquish her prey on the appearance of two British frigates.
There yet remain two classes of ships that deserve brief mention, privateers and State navies. From the beginning of the war there were swarms of American privateers that did great damage to British commerce, though it must p41be admitted, also, that English privateers preyed extensively on American merchantmen. The effect upon the outcome of the war was negligible. The losses suffered were apparently equal, and from the American standpoint, the ill effects probably outweighed the good. Appealing as privateering did to the enterprising and daring type of sailor, it diverted the very men who were most needed in the regular service. State navies were maintained by all the States but two for the protection of their coasts. Their vessels were chiefly small, and of shallow draft, designed for river and harbor defense. One of them, the Hyder Ali of the Pennsylvania Navy, mounting eighteen guns, and commanded by Lieutenant Barney, made in April, 1782, a brilliant capture of the English brig General Monk, mounting twenty guns.
Meanwhile a strong French fleet under De Grasse had rendered aid of the greatest importance to the land forces, co‑operating with Washington. When in 1781 the British power in America was confined to two centres, one at New York and the other in the Chesapeake, with the intervening country in the hands of the Americans, communications between the British forces depended wholly on the sea.7
Using one of his frigates as a dispatch boat, De Grasse arranged with Washington for a concerted attack on Yorktown. Early in September, 1781, the French fleet under De Grasse fought the British fleet under Graves, and, although the battle itself was indecisive, De Grasse succeeded in preventing Graves from entering Chesapeake Bay and effecting a junction with Cornwallis. Meanwhile, "a sudden march of Washington brought him to the front of the English troops . . . and the army of Cornwallis was driven by famine to a surrender as humiliating as that of Saratoga."8
1 Mahan, Jones in the Revolution (Scribner's Magazine, XXIV, 207.)
2 Jones's report may be found in Stewart's John Paul Jones Commemoration, pp139, ff.
3 Dodsley's Annual Register, XXII, 310.
4 Mahan, Scribner's Magazine, XXIV, 210.
5 Paullin, Navy of the American Revolution, p297.
6 Mackenzie, Life of Paul Jones, I, 205.
7 Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, p385.
8 Green, Short History of the English People, p785.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A Short History
of the U. S. Navy
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 18 Mar 13